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Discovery Nights | 1 Führung + 1 Apéro + 1 Konzert

15. Juni 2021

connecting with... Sarah Willis!

von Saskia Müller-Bastian

First of all, thanks a lot for taking the time, and we're very much looking forward to have you next season! You'll be doing a concert for kids and you are working in musical outreach and musical education. But not only for kids I would say, you're doing it for everyone. So, what's special when you do something for kids? What do you have to do differently compared to when you're talking to adults for example?

Well, actually not a lot differently because I found that the way that I talk to kids if they feel like you're treating them like a little kid, then they don't want to listen. So I treat them like they're my equals and, okay, maybe you change the language a little bit, and you don't talk about F sharp minor modulating to E flat major. But if you speak to them like you're on their level then they really respond. And also what I found with kids is they also really appreciate high quality standard of music making and that's just exactly like the adults. So, of course, the most difficult age group to get excited about anything are the teenagers, you know, they're sort of like way too cool and sometimes I feel totally inadequate because I'm a musician and maybe I'm not so cool to them and so there you have to work a little bit harder. But the younger kids are an absolute joy, and the older ones if you can reach them that is such a joy as well.

Do you have any secret, with all your work, did you find out how to talk to teenagers to make them excited?

It's the same as with the younger ones, and also I think with the grown-ups. If anyone talks down to you, at least to me, I don't want to listen to. And if someone's talking to me on my level and I understand what they're saying, and also someone's not talking to me in this sort of professor way - and I don't mean that negatively against professors, because, you know, great and intelligent people, but in a very sort of pedagogical way - and I think, because it's classical music and because we've got a little bit of that reputation that we may be a bit stuffy, that's exactly what I'm trying with my whole passion and my whole enthusiasm for classical music. I'm basically trying to share what I love so much with the audience whether they're grown-ups, teenagers or younger children and I don't really have any secret. I'm just trying to be who I am, because the kids smell from miles away if you're trying to be someone you're not. So, to reach the older ones, the teenagers, you know, sometimes you do, sometimes you don't, of course, you're battling against technology. They all want to take their phones out and be online when you're trying to talk to them. So, maybe you can even build that into what you're doing with them. It's basically looking at the generation you're talking to and trying to reach them in a way that they understand. But enthusiasm and passion is the most important. As a horn player, I always have secret weapons if I do concerts about my horn - and I brought them with me today. Can I show you my secret weapons?

Yes, please.

Okay, so this is the first secret weapon. *Shows a giant seashell* This makes all the kids quiet. This was the first French horn.

You can play on it?

Yeah, you can play on it, listen. *Uses the seashell as a French horn* You can't really get a very good note out of it, but you know... *Turns the seashell and blows in it* Ah, there you go! I just had to turn it around.


*Blows again in the seashell* Ah there we go! So, I tell the kids that this is like a text or a Snapchat or an Instagram. People used to play this and say signal, say “you can come home now” or “dinner is ready”. Once you start getting visual things into the mix you know the kids love it and look it's a cow horn *Showing and blowing in a cow horn*. And then, even a horn like this that comes from Peru. I think it's important to have visual things - especially if it's in a smaller group. So, even if it's not about the French horn, I often take these with me to just sort of explain what I do because, you know, you can see the horn and it's pretty and it's shiny, but it came from the shell and from the animal horn. So that's also a secret weapon. That's a big secret of mine so I hope you won't tell anyone.

My lips are sealed, no one will know. If you think about the future of music outreach, music education, do you see it in a digital way? What's your vision for that?

That's a good question. I mean, actually I’m a horn player, not a teacher. So everything I've learned to do is learning by doing. I've not been involved with studies and research and all the rest of it, but of course you see everybody knows that young people are on their phones 23 hours a day - or as often as they can be. So, yes, I do think that we need to be reaching them digitally as well. But the reason that I'm doing what I'm doing - and I think all the music educators all around the world - is because we know that the live music experience is absolutely unbeatable. And this is what we're trying to get other people to realize and the aim is to get them in the concert to experience this live, because I mean, you know, it's amazing ! But to get them away from their screens we have to be pretty clever. So maybe we need to get them on their screens first and then persuade them to come to a concert. Or maybe we need to do a concert where they can join in with interaction on their phones. People are trying all sorts of things. I hope that if I can get them to the concert, then they'll have fun, because then I'll do my absolute best, like in Luxembourg with the with the 12 cellos, I'm going to do my best. That's an interesting concert because it's not only for little children or for teenagers, it's a family concert, so basically you have to entertain kids from zero to kids who are 80 years old.

That's beautiful, in a way everyone becomes a kid in this sort of...

Of course!

You've been in this line of work for a long time - and I'm not talking about being a musician that you've been almost your whole life - but also musical outreach and education. What did bring you to do it at the very start?

Well, I studied in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and in England it was very common that you would be sent out to schools to do outreach work. That was always terrifying, you know, you're a young student yourself, you have no confidence, you're standing in front of this classroom or kids who are just not interested in what you're saying. They were quite scary moments, but at least we did it. And when I came to Germany, I found that was not so usual, the practice of going out into schools. There were of course people doing it, for example, but in my orchestra - the Berlin Philharmonic - there really was not a lot of outreach going on. And it took Sir Simon Rattle - who's also British -, when he came, he brought with him not only his amazing musical abilities, but he also brought with him the idea of an education program. And I must say that was for my colleagues and I similar to the experience that I had in London, because we weren't used to it. I'd had a little bit of a taste of it, but many of my colleagues hadn't done that before. I mean, everyone had taught, and everybody has their own way of communicating their music. But until you've stood in front of a class of 16 years old and tried to tell them about Beethoven, you haven't lived. So, Simon brought this wonderful education project idea with him, and it's just grown and grown from then and it was something I found that I really enjoyed. It was something I found that I was actually okay at. I found that the kids would actually listen to me and many of my colleagues said “why is that?”. I remember one of my colleagues saying to me after a session that we done with five wind players, he was like “why is it that when I speak the kids don't listen and when you speak they all do ?”. And that's a good question. We talked about that a lot, but it was what you and I just discussed just now: this way of speaking to them and being on their level, you know, they really don't react well to having the feeling they're being taught something in music, because they get that all day at school. So that's what started off my passion. I mean, I said already at the beginning, I'm not an educated music educator, I just do what I feel and, of course, you get a lot of experience after 10 years - we celebrated 10 years of the Berlin Philharmonic family concerts this December - and that's a lot of concerts in a 360 degrees environment, like the Philharmonie. And that's a lot of children and they let you know if they're bored, because the sound level goes up and up and up. So you have to have many tricks up your sleeve, so it's learning by doing with me.

Do you have examples of a concert, like the most successful one where you thought, I really had their attention going for the entire concert, and the worst one where the noise just went up and up and you couldn't stop it?

Well, I mean some classes when you go out into the school and the kids feel safe in their environment and then, if you're talking to older ones, sometimes that can be quite difficult. Kindergarten's always they… I love doing that but they're not going to hold back if they're bored. So, you know that kindergarten groups are great because you're talking then there's one disappearing off there and when he comes back then that one disappears off there, but you mustn't take it personally, that's how it is. But I must say, my experience presenting concerts in the Berlin Phil has been really amazing! I mean I can't say there's been anyone that I felt “God, I nailed it” because I'm always so critical with myself anyway, I never say “Oh! I nailed it”, that's just my life as a horn player, we rarely nail it 100%. So, I'm quite critical with that. But if I leave the stage happy - and I usually do after family concerts - I only hope that the audience is left happy. And a big test is hearing how quiet it is in the hall: you can get 2000 people quiet in a family concert if they're interested in what you're doing. And I remember the lovely concert in Luxembourg with your orchestra where we did Rhapsody in Blue, and at the end we did a towel dance where everyone was doing the Boogie Woogie, and I just looked out and saw all these people having fun! I saw a lot of embarrassed dads as well. Because, everyone in my concerts, they have to get up and do something at the end so you got the dads, but, you know, I made them smile too. I remember thinking “this is so wonderful” because everyone will go out smiling and whether they remember where Beethoven was born or whatever they can google all that, but I want them to leave my concerts with a feeling of “Wow! Music is great, I might go back to a concert.”

So, from what I hear can I assume you look forward to coming back?

I can't wait to come back to Luxembourg, because I love the orchestra, I love Gustavo - your conductor - and I won't be working with the orchestra this time, but I will be bringing 12 of my favorite colleagues, the 12 cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic, and they are such superstars, really. I remember the first time I did a family concert with them I really felt like I was standing on stage with pop stars. I play with them in the orchestra every day, but this ensemble is so special and they make such incredible sounds and because I'm such a fan of them and because I love to work with them… And maybe they'll let me sing with them as well, but don't tell anyone, big secret. I just can't wait to come back and it's our second concert with you in Luxembourg, and I hope that all the children will come from zero to eighty, ninety, a hundred!

How has Covid changed your life, your work, as an orchestra musician but also as a musical outreach star?

Well, thank you very much. I did everything online, everything I could, and we're all so zoomed out right now, I mean, just to be looking in the camera I'm happy to see you and happy to talk to my friends in Luxembourg. But you know what I mean. You've been in home office for a year as well. So, it's been the same as everyone. We've been very lucky at the Berlin Philharmonic, because we have our digital concert hall and so we've been able to play because we're tested all the time and we can play together on stage. But we have no audience and of course you miss the clapping like crazy and funnily enough the silence has become louder than the music because there's this it's deafening. You read these great writers that talk about the deafening silence and as a student I was like “Deafening? How can silence be deafening?” It really can be. We've missed that very much but as a music outreach person, a communicator, I have been able to do that a lot more globally than I would do normally because I've done classes for youth orchestras and we had a Halloween Horn Hangout for it for young children. I made them all dress up, not only bring their horns, but they had to dress up in Halloween costumes and done a series of videos. Everybody did what they could I think and the music world has advanced incredibly in a technical sense because most of us didn't even know how to set up Zoom. But now everyone's got microphones and cameras and you can even enhance your screen or put a… you know, you can even do something really exciting like change your background so here I can add a whole lot of horn players to my background while I'm talking or I can go and play with the soldiers in England. Or I can just go to the beach, so we've all been doing these crazy things and I think you would agree it's amazing that musicians have been able to do this. But, of course, there's nothing like a live event and this year, this Christmas, was the 10th anniversary of my Christmas concerts - my beloved Christmas concerts that I put my heart and my soul into - for our family events in the Philharmonie. And to be standing in a studio, we did a best of where I chose all my favorite moments which was also fun: But you need that feedback and if it goes well there's never any better feedback than a family concert, if it doesn't go well…

Well let's hope - and I'm sure - it will go well in Luxembourg, so fingers crossed.

Everyone is invited.

Yeah, and let's just hope the hall will be packed with people and you will have a lot of clapping.

I hope so and I hope that anybody who's watching this who hasn't been to a live concert maybe yet, please do! It'll change your life and if it doesn't that's okay too, but at least you've tried it. So, I hope to see you all in Luxembourg again soon and yeah, keep spreading the word.

Thank you so much Sarah!

Thanks Saskia, lovely to see you!

Lovely to see you!